As a coach and advisor to business owners, I find that the resolutions for many the of our most complex, challenging management situations become simple and obvious when we use precise language to accurately describe exactly what has happened and what we want to help happen. Getting work done is faster and easier, for example, for entrepreneurs who understand the five aspects of trust, the operative features of a powerful request, and the distinct types of group agreement.

Leadership success requires accurate evaluations of colleagues and keen cognizance of how others are evaluating us as leaders. Managers can improve these judgements by understanding the difference between four common words that are too often used interchangeably.

  • Integrity
  • Morality
  • Ethics
  • Legality

One action or omission may breach all four though not in every case.

Integrity comes from engineering. A machine or system with all of its parts and components working together as intended and expected has integrity. Integrity for the human machine is consistency of behaviors, often summarized as, “Do what you said you would do.”

Integrity isn’t right or wrong, good or bad. It just works.

Morality is that aspect of a culture which delineates “good behavior.” Morality is how we “ought” to do things around here, the requirements for being respectable. Morality emerges from some combination of intuition and mysticism, from the nature of being human, not by vote, volition, or convention.

Ethics is a set of rules specifically defining the behaviors required for membership in a group and enjoyment of the privileges membership confers. A defining characteristic of modern professions, e.g., accountants, lawyers, physicians, is a Code of Ethics. Ethics are manmade and can be changed by agreement.

Law defines behaviors that can be punished by government. A unique characteristic of government is a monopoly on the initiation of force. Laws may be arbitrary or democratic, stable or capricious, and applied with equality or discrimination.

These last three are about right and wrong. Integrity is in that field Rumi wrote a poem about. 😉

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.


I’ll meet you there.


A Great Wagon by Rumi

Those three also require imposed punishment:

  • Violate the law and risk violence.
  • Breach ethics and risk dismemberment (exclusion from membership).
  • Fail to act morally and be shamed, excluded from society.

Integrity does not require enforcement or punishment. Lack of integrity carries its own intrinsic punishments. Behaving with integrity just works better.

For the key to these distinctions, many thanks to, Integrity: A Positive Model That Incorporates The Normative Phenomena Of Morality, Ethics, And Legality by Erhard, Jensen, & Zaffron

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